Kenneth R. Timmerman publishes The Iran Brief, a monthly newsletter on strategy and trade, and is the author of The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
Few deny any longer the misdeeds of Iran's Islamic Republic. Even its foremost trading partners in Europe, Russia, and Japan acknowledge Tehran's support for international terrorism, its proclaimed goal of obstructing the Arab-Israeli peace process, its nuclear weapons program, its subversion of neighboring regimes, and its many human-rights violations. The dispute concerns what can be done. Patrick Clawson has argued in these pages1 for a form of enhanced containment. I shall make the case for a more activist policy, one that seeks a change in the nature of the regime.
ECONOMICS IS NOT THE KEY
On the premise that the U.S. government "does not have a major influence on Iranian domestic policy," Clawson advocates cautiously increasing economic pressure on the regime and waiting as sanctions take their toll on the well-being of ordinary Iranians. The rise in domestic dissent over the past three years, he suggests, and the increasingly blatant repression of fundamental political and social freedoms could very well cause the regime to fall on its own. This would allow Washington to reap the fruits of a more activist approach without ever exposing itself to its dangers.
Unfortunately, Clawson's attractive proposition is probably too good to be true. Economics alone is unlikely to change Iranian policy. The U.S. trade embargo on Iran has had real but limited effects; Iranians can simply go elsewhere to acquire most of the technology they need, for the embargo hardly tempered the desire of Iran's major trading partners to do business. If Japan's government appears to have shelved plans to extend a $600 million loan to Iran, those of France and Germany remain deaf to U.S. calls for restraint, and may make more than $1 billion in fresh credit available to Iran in the coming months.2 South Africa seeks to serve as Iran's oil marketing outlet for Africa. In a step specifically aimed at countering the U.S. embargo, Moscow signed a ten-year strategic agreement with Tehran at the very end of 1995, dramatically stepping up its nuclear, military, and industrial cooperation with Iran.3
True, sanctions have cost Iran a significant -- if temporary -- loss in oil revenue; they also appear to have caused a plunge in the value of its currency, the rial, forcing the Tehran government to impose rigid currency-exchange rules that overnight made the rial inconvertible and dramatically reduced Iran's non-oil exports.4 But Iran's ruling clergy has never shown great concern for economic hardship, an outlook summarized by Ayatollah Khomeini's [PC: is this quote correct? do you have a reference for it?] oft-repeated phrase that his revolution was "not about the price of melons." Damaging Tehran's economy may have no impact on the ruling clergy's anti-American ardor or its sponsorship of terrorism. Remember: this regime willfully sabotaged its only source of hard-currency revenues -- the oil industry -- during the revolutionary fervor of 1978-79. It also for six more years woozily sought revenge against Iraq in a battle that wrecked Iran's infrastructure and left the economy in tatters.
If the regime's leaders ignore economics, they show extreme sensitivity to threats from the United States, real or imagined, believing that Washington for seventeen years has tried to end their revolution. By imposing economic sanctions and seeking diplomatically to isolate Tehran, the Clinton administration has thrown down the gauntlet, exciting paranoia among Tehran's leaders. If past practice is any guide, the more Tehran feels pressure from the United States, the more it will lash back at U.S. interests across the globe, including the resort to terrorism. Clawson's enhanced containment, therefore, is not without risk.
If risk be unavoidable, the U.S. government should shoot higher by playing a vital role in helping democratic forces in Iran change the very nature of this regime.
Policy toward Iran should start by tightening existing sanctions against Iran; without such measures, foreign companies will continue to provide a lifeline to the Tehran regime, ensuring the failure of U.S. policy. Congress can give the administration the additional tool of import sanctions against foreign companies that continue to make significant new investments in Iran or that sell technology to Iran that is of proliferation concern.5 This would effectively force foreign companies to choose between trading with Iran or trading with the United States. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (Republican of New York) incorporated this approach in legislation introduced on September 8, 1995. After protracted negotiations with the Clinton administration, D'Amato's committee approved a modified proposal on December 12 that was immediately condemned by the European Union because it would affect its members' ability to trade with impunity with Tehran.
Next, the U.S. government needs to adopt a comprehensive policy toward Iran, one that includes four measures so far absent: encourage democracy; help unify the opposition; focus on human rights; and coordinate with key allies.
The administration can take several steps to encourage democrats inside Iran. Simplest, as Clawson has suggested, would be to stop making statements such as those of Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau that the United States accepts the Islamic Republic as a "deeply rooted" and "permanent feature." Instead, acknowledge the right of the Iranian people to choose their own government through real democracy -- not that simulacrum of democracy currently present in Iran.
Iran's parliament, for example, represents only the ruling faction of Iran's clergy, a minute fraction of Iran's population. Under Iran's constitution, candidates for parliamentary elections must be approved by a Council of Guardians consisting of six voting members (appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah `Ali Khamene'i) and six nonvoting members (selected by the head of the judiciary and approved by the Iranian parliament). Historically, the Council of Guardians has banned all candidates out of step with government policy. They have even banned former government ministers from running, such as `Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian who spearheaded the export of Iran's revolution in the early 1980s. In preparation for the March 1996 parliamentary elections, the council has banned all opposition parties, including those close to the regime, such as the Liberation Movement of Iran run by its first foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi.
The United States should publicly condemn this farce and encourage Iranians to forge a true democracy. A first step would be to call for opening next year's presidential elections to candidates other than mullahs (clerics). As one exile leader told me privately, statements in support of democracy by U.S. officials, broadcast over the Persian-language service of Voice of America and elsewhere, would have a tremendous impact on democratic forces inside Iran who are eagerly waiting for a green light from the United States to contest more openly the legitimacy of the current ruling clique.
HELP UNIFY THE OPPOSITION
Clawson is correct that "the Islamic Republic survives simply because there is no credible alternative. Like the shah's regime, it could collapse quickly if any such alternative emerged; if there is no alternative, it could survive another decade or more." Indeed, the regime is probably far more fragile than most outsiders believe -- an impression confirmed by a growing sensitivity to domestic critics and a nervousness about international pressures. The time is ripe, therefore, for the U.S. government to help Iranians construct a credible alternative.
That will not be easy, however. While any democratic alternative to the current regime will obviously have to originate inside Iran, the repressive tactics of the regime have made political organizing an extremely risky business. Domestic restrictions have compelled Iranians to seek some leadership and support from the outside, where the major opposition movements remain bitterly divided. Efforts to bring the various factions together around a common platform of support for democracy and human rights have failed owing to personal rivalries and envies. As one Iranian puts it, "We are a nation of presidents and no followers." Association with the Pahlavi regime has been a albatross for some years but, as Iran's domestic situation deteriorates, the notion of a constitutional monarch -- someone who would arbitrate among competing groups -- appears to be gaining popular support. Trouble is, the monarchist movement is divided, with constitutionalists trying to redefine the role of the monarch in a democratic society and traditionalists obsessed with seeking the return of seized property. These divisions have so thoroughly paralyzed the heir apparent, Reza Pahlavi, that he is unable to make routine decisions, much less tap potential support for a restoration.6
Religious figures in Iran and in exile who oppose the regime should be brought in as well, for they are likely to play a significant role in Iranian politics. Indeed, the most significant opposition to the regime is coming today from dissident mullahs and intellectuals, such as the philosopher `Abdolkarim Soroush, who favor a less militant brand of Islam.
The United States can help Iranian leaders by convening a unity conference for all democratic opposition groups, then encouraging them to plan a course of action to defeat the regime. Such an undertaking requires an in-depth knowledge of the various groups and personalities, as well as some skilled diplomacy, but U.S. leadership can help the Iranian opposition to stop bickering.7 Some Iranians have suggested modest U.S. funding to a broad range of opposition groups, perhaps from the CIA budget, while holding out the inducement of greater funding once a united front emerges.
FOCUS ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran's abysmal human-rights record deserves greater exposure in the West. Ironically, while human-rights lobbying contributed to the downfall of the shah, repression under the mullahs makes the shah look like an altar boy. He executed a few hundred prisoners during the final twenty-five years of his reign; they can boast of having put to death tens of thousands of suspected government opponents, according to Amnesty International.8 Petty crimes in the Islamic Republic of Iran are punished with public stonings; female adulterers are killed by being put into a postal sack and thrown off the roof of a ten-story building.9 The U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and nongovernmental monitoring groups have extensively documented the arbitrary arrests, widespread use of torture, massive execution of political opponents, and repression of ethnic and religious minorities.
Last October, the Iranian parliament voted to approve a new security law that criminalizes a broad range of nonviolent political activities. The new law includes a sweeping new "national security" provision, which can be used against political opponents both inside and outside Iran. According to the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, the new law "goes far beyond existing statutes in the Islamic Republic and suggests that recent riots in South Tehran and labor strikes in major factories may have destabilized the regime much more than previously thought."10 As domestic opposition to the regime continues to rise, the human-rights situation in Iran is likely to worsen. The Clinton administration should make available public funding for human-rights monitoring inside Iran, to give better and more graphic coverage of demonstrations, protests, and acts of repression by the regime. One idea would be to flood Iran with miniature video cameras, to encourage individuals to film such events from the relative safety of their own apartments.
COORDINATE WITH ISRAEL AND GREAT BRITIAN
The Clinton administration has expended a great deal of effort in recent months to win support for the sanctions imposed on Iran in May 1995. At a House International Relations Committee meeting in November, Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff told a remarkable tale of diplomatic arm-twisting:
We seize every opportunity -- in bilateral conversations and during multilateral consultations -- to make our point. . . . They include, but are not limited to, the following: phone calls from the President, meetings with the Vice President, personal letters from Secretary Christopher, visits to capitals by myself and Near East Assistant Secretary Pelletreau, consultations by other cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Perry, Energy Secretary O'Leary, and Commerce Secretary Brown, and frequent exchanges between our ambassadors and heads of state.11
At the same meeting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bruce Reidel told the representatives of a partial U.S. success in preventing shipments of chemical weapons precursors from China.
Such efforts may be useful, but Iran's major suppliers -- Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and China -- are likely to resist scaling back their commercial relations with Tehran, barring major incentives or threats from the United States, while Russia appears bent on forging a strategic alliance with Tehran. Instead of dispersing its efforts, the U.S. government should focus more tightly on finding a small number of key allies who share U.S. concerns over Iran. To foster democratic change in Iran requires only two allies: Israel and Great Britain.
Israel. Israel being the declared target for Iran's long-range missiles and its nuclear weapons program, Jerusalem has an obvious interest in joining forces with the United States. Nor are all the threats in the future: Israeli citizens have borne the brunt of Iranian-backed terrorist attacks (by Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) in recent years. Iran's intelligence service was even implicated in a plot to assassinate the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasir Arafat and to ambush Israeli tourists visiting the Jordanian site of Petra.12
Israeli officials speak the same language as their American counterparts. Uri Lubrani, Jerusalem's leading expert on Iran, calls the Islamic Republic a "malignant tumor" in the region and argues against seeking a change in its behavior. "You cannot change [the policies of] a regime that takes its cue from God."13 Israel has assets inside Iran that could be enlisted in a coordinated effort, and has its own "voice" inside Iran via its Persian-language radio broadcasts.
Great Britain. Nor should Great Britain, the country that has historically played kingmaker in Iran, be ignored. London maintains an embassy in Tehran and has the best network of informers both inside the country and among opposition groups overseas. Iranians have an uncommon fear of the United Kingdom, deriving in part from a long history of British meddling in Iran, in part from a fertile imagination.14 A British general helped Reza Khan come to power in 1921, leading to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty. Richard Ullman, Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921, vol. 3, The Anglo-Soviet Accord (Princeton, N In 1953, London joined with Washington to restore Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the throne after he had been deposed. In 1978, however, U.S. and British policy diverged, and Iran's current leaders are convinced they came to power with the blessing of London and the active promotion of the BBC. American leaders should enlist British support for future moves. If Iranians believed that the U.S. and Britain were allied in seeking a change of regime, an Iranian says, the effect would be electric.
In addition, U.S. diplomats should hold consultations with Washington's friends and allies in the region who share U.S. concerns about the Iranian regime. Encouraged by a more active U.S. approach toward the Tehran regime, states in the Persian Gulf may well contribute financially to these efforts, much as they helped in the effort to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
House speaker Newt Gingrich has urged the use of American covert operations to destabilize Iran's regime. While it is not known what he has in mind, it could be similar to the funding provided to anti-communist labor unions in Western Europe during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Iranian equivalents might be found in dissident groups of mullahs, writers' unions, women's organizations, and exile groups. But most policies should be overt. Radio Free Iran, for example, can be funded by the U.S. Information Agency, while support for human-rights monitoring groups can be earmarked in a special supplement to the existing appropriation for the National Endowment for Democracy.15
When he imposed sanctions on Iran last May, President Clinton embarked on a courageous course in seeking to change the behavior of the Iranian regime. But current policy is too limited in scope to be successful, while exposing U.S. citizens to revenge by the Tehran regime. The more comprehensive approach outlined here would not expose the Americans any more than they already are to the enmity of Tehran's leaders. But it would have a greater chance of success, and it would meet America's historic commitment that free peoples choose their own form of government.
1 Patrick Clawson, "What to Do about Iran," Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 1995, pp. 39-49.
2 "Iran says lenders offering $1.8 billion in credit,"Reuters, Dec. 4, 1995.
3 Reuters, Dec. 28, 1995.
4 "Currency rules cut Iran's exports, official says,"Reuters, Nov. 30, 1995.
5 I argued this point in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, Mar. 16, 1995.
6 When Senator D'Amato invited Pahlavi to testify before the Senate Banking Committee in Sept. 1995, one group of supporters urged him to decline the invitation as "undignified," while others argued that a vigorous appearance would show him to be leader of the democratic opposition. As different groups jockeyed for influence with the prince, a veritable palace intrigue ended with his choosing to remain silent.
7 The People's Mujahedin of Iran claims to represent the entire democratic opposition but its past and present practices belie its intent; and its dependence on Baghdad has alienated most Iranian dissidents.
8 "Iran: Official secrecy hides continuing repression," Amnesty International, May 1995, p. 7. Exile groups such as the People's Mujahedin claim a figure of over one hundred thousand political victims.
9 Middle East Defense News, "Human Rights Abuses in Iran," Mar. 12, 1990, p. 1.
10 "New Security Law Violates Human Rights," Foundation for Democracy in Iran Press release, Oct. 22, 1995.
11 Testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Nov. 9, 1995.
12 The Independent, quoted in Reuters, Dec. 7, 1995; Reuters, Dec. 9, 1995.
13 The Iran Brief, Dec. 5, 1994.
14 On which, see Ahmad Ashraf, "Conspiracy Theories," Encyclopedia Iranica.
15 NED appropriated $50,000 in fiscal year 1996 for human-rights monitoring in Iran, a good beginning.